The Zoo Book, part 5

The final four chapters now!


The hedgehog (aka the hedge-pig) get a page and a half to introduce us to armoured animal. I’m not sure the humble hedgehog is really zoo exhibit material but it gives Blyton a chance to show off her knowledge of British wild-life.

  • The porcupine, despite the looks, is not a cousin of the hedgehog but rather is a rodent. The name means spiny pig. Blyton says perhaps you have seen penholders or toothpicks made of porcupine quills. Probably not that likely these days.
  • The armadillo
  • The tortoise and the turtle are both reptiles, and very similar so get lumped together here. They’re cold blooded, lay eggs, are slow and lazy, fond of sleeping and live to be a great age. Tortoise not a good pet as they eat what they shouldn’t (I assume she means flowers etc) and disappear easily. Only then does she say that turtles rarely leave the sea and have flippers instead of stumpy legs (I have seen an awful lot of people get turtles and tortoises mixed up, this sort of thing doesn’t help!). The hawkbill turtle has a shell which when polished and made into ‘tortoiseshell’ brushes and combs, is very beautiful. Probably more beautiful left on the animal though!
  • Crocodiles and alligators, another pair of similar animals that people confuse. Blyton tells us where we can find them and describes them as slow and clumsy on land… but I think they can get up a reasonable speed, or have I watched too many SyFy movies? I don’t think they can keep it up for very long but I’m sure they can run. Their anatomies (and differences) are covered – apparently the alligator gets the will eat human beings if it can get them, but the same isn’t said for the crocodile, but both are not pleasant creatures. I was interested to read that neither has a tongue, I’m not sure I knew that. I have since looked that up and it’s not true! The crocodile has a tongue that doesn’t move, and isn’t used for feeding but for protecting the airway, while the alligator has a regular tongue used for moving food in the mouth.

Interestingly the below anecdote is then included:

Once a traveller killed a crocodile and cut it open, and what do you think he found inside it? Here are some of the things, and they will show you what a man-eating monster it must have been: eleven heavy brass arm rings, three wire amulets, one bead necklace, fourteen arm and leg bones of various animals, eighteen stones, and some porcupine quills! This is difficult to believe, but it is quite true. 

How I wish I knew her source for that story! I have a hard time believing it.

  • Ant-eaters are cousins of the armadillo. Pangolin is the proper name (ant-eater is a generic term which  applies to the aardvark, numbat and echidnas too.) “The great ant-eater” is mentioned, and I think that means the aardvark.

pangolin ant eater london zoo


So many birds, Blyton says she found it hard to know which to write about and so has stuck to those you are likely to see at the zoo.

  • The eagleMany of them you cannot see under the best conditions – the eagles for instance. How can any one see the real splendour and power of an eagle when it is cooped up in a cage? Mountains and the blue sky are the proper background for a bird like that. That comes across as a bit mean – all about the visitor, never mind the poor birds.
  • The vultures, like jackals and hyaenas they are ‘dustmen’ eating leftovers from other carnivores. The condor is not a nice looking bird, he too would look better in his native home. (And be more comfortable probably!)

london zoo vulture

  • The owls. Blyton mentions a naked-footed owlet. I can’t find out anything about this. It appears in an 1877 book about London Zoo, but other than that I’ve drawn a blank. Naked-footed owl brings up another few very old sources. It/they must have another name though!
  • The ostrich can carry two men on his back. Ostrich feather farming is described  – where they wrap the males’ wings in cloth then the feathers are cut off. But it’s ok, it doesn’t hurt and they regrow!
  • FlamingoesOnce there came a gale and blew through the Zoo gardens. It scurried the flamingoes off their feet and gave them the lift they wanted in order to fly – and there were all thee Zoo’s precious flamingoes sailing over Regent’s Park, astonished and delighted to be able to use their wings again! It took a long time to recapture the but at last all but one were brought safe home again to Three Island Pond. 
  • The pelicans who store fish in their big baggy beak.
  • The parrots, and also cockatoos and parakeets. Unfortunately, when many parrots are kept together, as at the Zoo, the talkers seem to lose their “talk”, and simply screech and scream instead. (How dare they revert to their natural form of communication!) 
  • The Kea has become a meat-eater after white men found New Zealand and began farming sheep. They now fly down and try to eat sheep alive. The New Zealand Government offers five shillings to any one killing a kea.
  • The penguin. There’s a sad story of a penguin couple with an egg; the other penguins were so interested they wanted a turn at nursing it, and it broke. The mother penguin cuddled a piece of the broken shell for a long while after. Maybe it’s pregnancy hormones but that’s so tragic! (I also wonder how rare it was for penguins to successfully breed in zoos if all the other penguins were so fascinated by it.)
  • The peacock is described in detail making me wonder if peacocks weren’t common in the UK then as they were imported. Maybe you could only see them in zoos or in the private grounds of very rich people.

peacock london zoo


Ah, I now see that fish and other sea creatures are going to be covered here, as I did think them missing from the water loving animals chapter.

Much of the chapter focuses on the aquarium itself at first. It was built underground to maintain the temperature of the tanks and cost £55,000. It is a dark space with lit tanks so you can see the fish better. Sea water was brought in from the Sea of Biscay in steamers to London, then via barges up the Regent’s Canal to the Zoo. It was stored in reservoirs under the aquarium and pumped up into smaller reservoirs which then ran into the tanks. Water leaving the tanks then ran through sand to clean it. Compressed air was pumped into tanks too and the pipes were lined with enamel to prevent rust. It sounds like they put a great deal off effort into the project, and I hope it was successful in keeping the fish etc alive and well.

octopus london zoo

Not many animals get a long description but some mentioned are seaweeds, anenomes, fishes, shell-fish, crabs, lobsters, turtles, the octopus, salamanders and eels of different types. One interesting story is that flat-fish start out normal shaped and flatten by lying on the sea bed. This sounded so bizarre that I had to look it up. It’s not quite true, but they do start out like normal fish then go through a bizarre puberty.

Also interesting is that it takes half an hour for a lobster to shed its shell, as it doesn’t grow, and up to three weeks to replace it (they hide away when unprotected, I’ve never seen a ‘naked’ lobster at the aquarium!) Slightly contradicting herself from earlier Blyton says that Green turtles are always very lively. A good description of the sea horse is that it’s not much like a real horse but like a chess knight.

sea horses london zoo


Most toy elephants are called Jumbo, claims Blyton, and there was a real Jumbo in 1865 which is where the name comes from. He carried children on rides for 16 years. Then, as sometimes happens with elephants when they are about twenty years old, he became restless and trouble-some. He would charge at the walls of his stall, splinter the wood and drive his tusks though the iron plates that strengthened his house. No one except his keeper dared go near him. When Scott took him out into the Gardens, Jumbo quietened down and was very peaceful. But it was dangerous to have an elephant about as strong and as big as Jumbo who might lose his temper any moment and kill someone. So the Zoo decided to sell him. 

Mr Barnum (I assume P.T. Barnum of the famous circus?) of the US wrote and offered £2000. But Jumbo wouldn’t get into the crate to go. It took five weeks to persuade him, and in that time a song was written about him and it was in the newspapers. Barnum showed him for three years and all was well, until… travelling in the wilderness by a railway line Jumbo charged at a train engine and lost.

Alice, Jumbo’s wife had also gone to Barnum’s, but she was burnt in a fire two years after Jumbo died. Another elephant, Jingo, was sold to Mr Bostock by the Zoo, but he was so homesick he died on the ship.

How very cheery! Next up, a load of primates who probably developed lung cancer…

Consul the chimp was brought up with an ordinary family so he could do excellent tricks and earned a lot of money. He could write and type his own name. He sounds like the inspiration for Sammy in the Galliano’s Circus books – he would eat a meal with cutlery, undress and get into bed etc. He also smoked cigarettes, though.

Mickey “a cripple” who swung himself about on his arms and had a real temper.

Orang-utans like Sandy who could smoke a pipe and Jacob who escaped and built a nest up a tree. Jacob was returned to his cage but the nest was left as a curiosity.

Sandy Junior who spat out meal worms at people.

Jenny the monkey, formerly a pet on a ship. She could smoke a pipe and drink out of a glass. Strangely she had a real chicken for a friend.

And then back to Sam and Barbara – Sam was shot when he got lonely after Barbara died. Another polar bear called Sam used to collect umbrellas. This habit began when someone poked him with an umbrella (as you do when you go to a zoo!) when he was asleep. Sam was angry, grabbed the umbrella and broke it into bits. 

After that he fancied more umbrellas so used to pretend he couldn’t reach a bit of fish on a ledge. So when the visitors used their umbrellas to help him out he would grab them and ruin them.

And there we have it. A rather fascinating insight into not only London Zoo but to the attitudes of people towards wild animals in the 1920s. A lot of it is really quite sad and uncomfortable. I was surprised at the many stories of death and suffering of Zoo animals. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been right to paint a picture that all zoo animals were happy and lived long lives but their suffering wasn’t detailed with the idea of raising awareness or making a point about animal welfare. It was all treated as rather ‘ho ho ho, how jolly.’

I’d love to know what children of the time made of it, and how much it expanded their knowledge of animals they had perhaps never even heard of before.

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1 Response to The Zoo Book, part 5

  1. Francis says:

    Congratulations Fiona – a lovely bonnie paper.
    Many regards


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